By John Gruber
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One meta question heading into last week’s event was what form it would take? We knew it was back in the Steve Jobs Theater — the first event there since 2019 — but would it go back to the way things were pre-COVID, with much of it taking place live on stage? Or would Apple stick with the new entirely pre-filmed format — a format necessitated by COVID but fully embraced by Apple as an opportunity with new potential — and effectively just show a movie to those of us in the theater?
I knew we had the answer when Tim Cook took the stage, live, at 9:57am PT. Cook is uber-punctual. Steve Jobs often took the stage for keynotes a few minutes late; Cook is always precisely on time. So when he took the stage at 9:57 I knew he’d do a short live introduction for those of us in the audience, followed by a filmed presentation that would roll exactly at 10:00 sharp.
Media reaction to this was, at least from the peers I spoke with, mostly positive. A few people had an “If they’re just going to show us the same movie they’re streaming to everyone, why are we even here?” take, but it’s obvious that the real value of being invited to attend live has always been about what happens after the keynotes, not seeing them on stage live. The hands-on areas after keynotes are useful not just for seeing and touching the products — colors, in particular, demand being seen in person — but for impromptu off-the-record conversations with Apple folks and other invited guests. A few years ago I got to spend time after a keynote chatting with an up-and-coming filmmaker who shared my interest in The Shining. Interesting things happen when interesting people are in the same place. Interesting things don’t happen over Webex group meetings.
I think the new pre-filmed format is a win overall. I also personally generally prefer watching movies to live theater — those who prefer live theater might feel differently. There’s certainly more drama with a live presentation — with this format, entirely pre-recorded, we’ll never see an Apple feature demo fail again. That drama energizes a live presentation. Something has been lost.
These pre-filmed product introductions move faster — the transitions between scenes happen at the speed of energetic cinema, not the speed of a human being walking across a large stage to hand the slide clicker to the next presenter. This allows Apple to cover the same amount of information in less time. My gut feeling is that last week’s 90-minute presentation would have taken a full 2 hours if it had been on-stage in the traditional way. And the new format allows Apple to use far more employees to make the presentation. I lost count during last week’s show, but clearly there were more than a dozen Apple folks who got presentation time during the show. That just isn’t possible to do gracefully with an on-stage live presentation, and I think it’s an overall win to have more employees included to tell the world about what they’ve been hard at work creating. Just like with WWDC sessions, it’s also a win for would-be presenters who find speaking in front of a live audience too stressful.
As for what Apple introduced last week: Sometimes Apple has two or three products ready to announce, and whether those products really go together thematically or not, that’s what gets announced at an event. In this case though, the iPhone/Watch/AirPods triumvirate really do go together well. And, as noted by my Dithering cohost Ben Thompson, Cook’s pre-recorded opening monologue emphasized that perfectly. Cook said:
Products that are intuitive and easy-to-use, that have a unique integration of hardware and software, and that are incredibly personal. Today we’re here to talk about three products that have become essential in our lives: iPhone, AirPods, and Apple Watch. They’re always with you, whenever and wherever you need them, and are designed to work seamlessly together. On their own, each is industry-leading. Together, they provide a magical experience.
As Dizzy Dean said, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”
Apple spent a lot of time in the keynote talking about very unpleasant things: car crashes,1 getting lost, needing emergency help when out of cellular service range, and some health issues. In the opening short film featuring real people who wrote letters to Apple thanking them for the emergency help their Apple devices provided them, we even saw a recreated plane crash site and a garbage man who fell and got trapped in the trash truck’s compactor.
These are unpleasant things. It’s easier and more natural to market the fun aspects of a new product. Prior to Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, auto makers resisted even putting seat belts into cars — let alone marketing them as features — because they worried about consumers thinking that the existence of seat belts implied that cars were unsafe.
But people do care about safety, both for themselves and their loved ones. People will buy products for these features. Years ago, Volvo made waves by basing their advertising on passenger safety features. They showed their cars being destroyed in crashes, including being driven right off the roof of a building.
So I think Apple is doing the right thing, not only by engineering custom chips for crash detection (in both new iPhones and Apple Watches), but emphasizing all these features. (Jason Snell has a whole column at Macworld about this.)
The new AirPods Pro are the best single expression of Apple as a company today. Not the most important product, not the most complicated, not the most essential. But the one that exemplifies everything Apple is trying to do. They are simple, they are useful, and they offer features that most people use and want. Most people use headphones. A lot of people use them every day — in noisy environments. AirPods Pro are — for any scenario where big over-ear-style headphones are impractical — the best headphones in the world.
But they’re only $250. Expensive compared to generic wired earbuds, yes, but for a flagship product from Apple, affordable. And Apple even said during the keynote that AirPods Pro are their best-selling AirPods. People who consider buying any AirPods gravitate toward the best ones.
I don’t lose my AirPods charging case often, but it happens, and the fact that the first-gen case wasn’t findable was frustrating. A company that makes $29 AirTags ought to be able to make a findable AirPods case. And now they have.
What I like best about AirPods Pro, and why I say they’re the single best expression of Apple today, is that there’s nothing left to complain about them. They set out to do few things but they do all of those few things well, and in ways that typical users can discover and use. Their default settings are perfect. They look great. There’s no feature creep, and no subscription services charge to use them. You buy them, you set them up, you use them. They integrate very well with all of Apple’s other products. They really just disappear into your daily life.
Is the Ultra a rugged extreme sports watch? Or a premium Apple Watch for anyone who’d prefer a bigger look on their wrist, bigger display on their watch, and longer battery life? It makes perfect sense that the answer is “both”.
A few impressions from the hands-on area after the keynote: The orange on the action button (and accenting the digital crown) is chef’s kiss. I like this orange accent better than the red accent Apple has been using for cellular-enabled Series models’ digital crowns. I don’t dislike that red, but I love this orange. The action button itself seems so useful because the other two buttons — the pushable crown and the next-to-the-crown side button — are (and always have been) system buttons. The WatchOS system controls what those buttons do — not apps, and not the user. The action button is for apps to control and/or for users to define. We’ll see how that works in practice, but my first impression is that the action button seems so useful it ought to be on the Series 9 models next year too. (My friend Matthew Panzarino is very proud of this piece he wrote back in 2016.)
Series 8? Incremental update, obviously. The new SE is more interesting. Last year Apple had a lineup where the previous SE model started at $280, and the entry-priced $200 model was the ancient Series 3 — a model so outdated that it isn’t even eligible to update to WatchOS 9 this year. For some people, those are watches that are just a few months old. It’s a bit of a bummer that the entry price no longer hits that magic “$199” mark, but this new SE is a remarkably better watch than the Series 3. The new SE comes with the new S8 and W3 chips; the old Series 3 had the five-year-old S3 chip. The new Apple Watch SE models are Apple Watches we can wholeheartedly recommend to friends and family. You can obviously spend more to get more with the Series 8 and Ultra, but what you get with the new SE is all good.
The Ultra starting at $800 surprised me. Watching the keynote, I was guessing “$999” and wouldn’t have been surprised if it had started as high as $1,250, like the Hermès models do. But at $800, it’s only $50 more than the price of a 45mm Series 8 in stainless steel. And it’s $50 less than the 45mm Series 7 (and 44mm 5 and 6) were in titanium. Starting this year, the Series 8 models are available only in aluminum and stainless steel,2 and titanium is exclusive to the Ultra. It’s hard to imagine Apple pricing the Ultra at anything less than “$799”.
Short take: solid year-over-year updates, the Dynamic Island is the most exciting new UI concept from Apple since the iPhone X’s reimagined iPhone experience, and it’s quite surprising to me that prices remained unchanged for U.S. customers. (It’s alas also unsurprising, given the strength of the U.S. dollar, that prices have gone up 10-15 percent in most other countries.)
My informed understanding is that every location in the keynote — except for the subway car/jackhammer/cafe set piece for the AirPods Pro demo — was real. They were all shot practically. Jeff Williams really was standing on a cliff. Mike Huish, CEO of Huish Outdoors, really was on a boat when he introduced the new Oceanic+ app for Apple Watch Ultra. All practical locations except that one set piece that was obviously a set. (Can’t get much more obvious than pulling back and revealing the stage.)
What comes around goes around. Carrier deals are back in a big way, including seemingly generous trade-in offers. I know that the existence of these carrier deals isn’t new this year, but it seems like they’re growing ever bigger promotionally.
One thing that was new at the event for media invitees: magnetometer security screening and (I think — hope? — random) pat downs. It seemed more weird that, in hindsight, there was so little security in the old days, not so much weird that there was more security last week.
The screen and sound system inside the Steve Jobs Theater are simply amazing. I suspect, in all seriousness, the best that money can buy. My one gripe: the stage is a very high-gloss black, and it reflects the screen. If on-stage presentations are a thing of the past and future use of the theater will be mostly used for showing these films, Apple ought to look into a less reflective coating for the stage. It’s so reflective that at a glance it sometimes creates the illusion of a 4:3 aspect ratio with the stage floor as part of the display. Like this shot from Joanna Stern on Twitter.
It still feels fresh and invigorating to attend something like this in person. A lot more hugging than there used to be.
Kudos to Apple for always referring to car crashes, never car accidents. Calling them “accidents” is a euphemism that distracts from just how dangerous motor vehicles are, and once you consider that no one ever talks about “plane accidents”, you’ll never say “car accident” again. ↩︎
Like last year, the darker steel Series 8 models are “graphite”, but the Hermès models are “space black”. This is a bit of a shame and I don’t get it — I find space black far more distinctive and interesting on Apple Watch than graphite. From the original Series 0 models onward, Apple’s space black stainless steel created the wonderful illusion of there being no clear distinction between where the sapphire crystal ends and the steel case begins. Apple’s marketing photos don’t do justice to just how black space black looks. Space black Apple Watches look like perfect little glossy black shapes on your wrist. To me, the space black models exemplify the iconic Apple Watch object. Perhaps Apple agrees with me and they’re segmenting the colors like this just to steer more people who love the look of space black on the watch to the Hermès premium-priced models. But if you don’t want to use an Hermès strap it feels like a waste of money to spend $600 more just to get a blacker black watch. ↩︎︎